Art Alluding to Pro-Palestine Slogan Nixed From Miami Beach Display

More than 300 South Florida arts workers have signed an open letter in solidarity with artist Khánh Nguyên Hoàng Vũ, whose work alluding to the phrase “from the river to the sea” was abruptly removed from a Miami Beach display organized by the local nonprofit Oolite Arts.

Vũ’s artwork, “How we live like water” (2023), visualized the pro-Palestine slogan through images of the Jordan River and the Atlantic Ocean in an exhibition exploring the artist’s ties to South Florida and Vietnam, the scourge of sea-level rise, and instances of “mass upheaval, genocide, and ecocide,” per a wall text. Starting in late March, attentive passersby could contemplate the poetic message in the windows of the Walgreens at Collins Avenue and 67th Street.

But on May 3, the work was suddenly removed by Oolite Arts, which has mounted regular exhibitions in the unassuming pharmacy window since 2000. According to Vũ, Oolite leadership cited a complaint letter from “a group of Jewish lawyers” to the organization’s board decrying the inclusion of the slogan. Amid global demonstrations against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, some have interpreted the chant as a destructive call for the obliteration of Israel altogether, despite a long history of activists and intellectuals defending the phrase as a rallying cry for Palestinian dignity and equal rights that challenges the core Zionist assumption of Israeli statehood extending from the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Though the work was approved last October and had been on view at Walgreens since March 27, the Oolite Arts board decided that the piece violated the organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) code, Vũ said. The rest of the artist’s window exhibition, which includes drawings and sculptures that do not refer to the slogan, remains on view.

Khánh Nguyên Hoàng Vũ’s artwork for the Oolite Arts x Walgreens windows was taken down on May TK.

The signatories of the recent open letter in support of Vũ questioned Oolite Arts’s decision to dismantle the artist’s work, particularly without an opportunity for dialogue, and called for clarity on what the nonprofit believes constitutes “’political’ art worthy of being exhibited.”

“The Oolite Arts Board of Directors’ removal of Vũ’s work is a part of cultural institutions’ ongoing stigmatization and censorship of artworks and statements expressing solidarity with the people of Palestine — an active refusal on the part of institutions to maintain their apparent values of freedom of expression and inclusivity,” the letter reads.

In response to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment, the Oolite Arts board of trustees said it regrets that “the removal of Vũ Hoàng Khánh Nguyên’s artwork has offended some in our community, and that its contents offended others in our community.”

“We believe strongly in the right to artistic expression, but the particular phrase highlighted in this piece is perceived by many as a literal call for violence against them. As an organization that exists for artists, we do wish we had taken more time to have deeper conversations with the artist, our staff and other stakeholders about the work and our decision,” the board’s statement continued, adding that it will conduct a review of the incident with an independent consultant and reevaluate its policies. Vũ has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.

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An artwork made during a figure drawing session at Oolite Arts depicts José Santiago wearing a keffiyeh. (photo courtesy José Santiago)

Amid the fallout, others have voiced distress at what they view as Oolite Arts’s silencing of Palestinian culture and perspectives. José Santiago, an artist who has worked as a model for nude figure drawing classes at Oolite Arts for the last nine months, told Hyperallergic that he was asked to stop bringing a keffiyeh to the sessions. Santiago had previously worn the Palestinian headscarf while modeling and draped it on a chair on a separate occasion.

In a phone call this morning, May 9, an Oolite Arts administrator told him that the keffiyeh could be considered offensive to the Jewish community of Miami Beach, where the nonprofit currently houses resident artists and presents programming on Lincoln Road.

“I expressed my disappointment at the censorship that’s going on. As an artist I think we have to use our art to speak about what’s happening in the world, beyond what’s going in our neighborhood,” Santiago told Hyperallergic, adding that he would withdraw his support of the organization if it did not address and rectify the recent incidents.

Chire Regans (VantaBlack), a Miami-based artist and educator and the inaugural recipient of Oolite Arts’s Social Justice award, said the organization’s removal of Vũ’s artwork indicates that “if somebody doesn’t like it, it comes down.”

“This is not the message that you send to a community of artists that you claim to represent,” Regans told Hyperallergic.

“My work centers the Black community, oppression, police brutality, gun violence … I earned the Oolite Arts Social Justice award, which set a precedent in South Florida that if you are talking about difficult subjects, we support you,” she continued. “Now, in 2024, to make a unilateral decision to censor an artist is hypocrisy.”

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